By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
The many medieval frescoes that cover our churches, chapels, and caves, often make us dream away with their shimmering colors, their scent of sanctity and their millennial history. This type of religious art, which was seemed dead after the genocide and the total destructions at the end of the thirteenth century by the Mamluks, would be reborn four centuries later on the walls of a cave in the patriarchal monastery of Qannoubine. In this monastery founded towards the end of the fourth century by Theodosius the Great (or it might be Theodosius the Cenobiarch), a patriarch decided to revive the art form of the Syriac fresco and crown the blessed Virgin as Queen of Lebanon. This Patriarch, Mar Estéphanos Douayhi, is himself the child of the Lebanese Renaissance, initiated by the Maronite College of Rome founded in 1584.
The Italian Renaissance freed itself from the constraints of Christian iconographic laws that imposed frontality, the hieratic view towards eternity, and the absence of volume, magnitude, and perspective. This movement of cultural revival even assumed the liberty of portraying that which is “nameless and faceless”: God the Father. Previously, the Christian tradition which follows the scriptures closely, allowed only the rendering of what was revealed and manifested to man. In the Bible we read “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) and “The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Accordingly, one may only guise God in the form of his Son incarnate. Iconography has its norms also aligned to the concept of the duality between Good and Evil. Good is the spiritual world which knows neither matter nor the darkness evoked by volume, three-dimensionality, or shadow. Evil is connected with the material and carnal world. Banned from medieval frescoes, but reinstated by the Renaissance, these elements will make their appearance in the murals of Our Lady of Qannoubine.
Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi had already written several books on art and culture when he commissioned the Coronation fresco, measuring approximately 4.40m x 4.40m, to the artist Boutros the Cypriot. If Saint John Maron is the founder of Lebanon with its Syriac language, its Church, and its army, then Estéphanos Douayhi is the one who fixed it by writing it down in history and in the fine arts. His oeuvre consists of works on Maronite architecture, Syriac music, iconographic painting, history, and liturgy. The Coronation of the Virgin is his ultimate masterpiece, the expression of all his thoughts and aspirations for a Lebanon dedicated to the Mother of God. He makes her the Queen of Lebanon. For him she is the protector and guarantor of the spirituality of Lebanon.
The Patriarch selected “The Monastery” par excellence, the most important monastery of the Maronite Church. Because the name Qannoubine – in Syriac Qénoubine – is a word of Greek origin that simply means monastery par excellence. Due to its primacy, it retained this original name, while the rest of the monasteries of Lebanon are all referred to by the common Syriac designation ‘Deir’. The patriarchal seat of the Syriac Maronite Church remained in Qannoubine for four centuries, i.e., from the last Mamluk attack on the seat of Ilige in 1440 until the founding of Bkerké in 1854.
Qannoubine includes four frescoes: that of the apse, the two of the apsidioles and the large painting of the Coronation. The apse pictures a Deisis similar to those found in medieval Maronite churches, notably at Saint Theodor of Béhdidét. It is the representation of Christ in Majesty in a theophanic vision, carried by the tetramorph, flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist.
Qannoubine’s Deisis, however, unlike Béhdidét’s medieval version, features voluminous bodies that attempt to reproduce the magnitudes of Italian painting. Moreover, on both sides, it is Saint Stephen and not Saint John the Baptist who faces Mary, because the patriarch bears his name (Estéphanos in Syriac).
On each side, the apsidioles take up this new voluminous style with the prophet Daniel in the lion’s den in one, and in the other, Saint Joseph carrying the child Jesus. The Syriac inscription reads “Saint Joseph, intercede on our behalf”. Here and there Latin replaces the Greek inscriptions that characterized the medieval Maronite paintings alongside Syriac.
The Coronation Fresco
Next to these three rich testimonies of the Maronite artistic heritage, it is the fourth composition that constitutes the most important and emblematic element. It is the large fresco of the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin. Commissioned by Patriarch Estéphanos Douayhi, it leans against the natural cliff from which the vault arises. This masterpiece expresses the dedication of Lebanon and the Syriac Maronite Church to the Virgin Mary.
The art of the patriarchal monastery of Qannoubine illustrates the Latinization of the Maronites, both in their art of painting and in their inscriptions. Qannoubine adopts the new techniques of the Italian renaissance. The effects of shadow, volume, and perspective appear. Greek, which has always accompanied Syriac inscriptions, is here replaced by Latin. Garshouné (Arabic written in Syriac letters) is now also starting to be used. At the very beginning of the eighteenth century, the elders of the Maronite College in Rome instituted the Lebanese Renaissance. They drew their inspiration from the Italian Renaissance and the language of the Vatican, while preserving the themes of their Syriac Tradition and their attachment to their Syriac language, guarantor of their spirituality and their view on eternity.
Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2
For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org